Given that it has zero reason to exist and caters to our cynicism by acknowledging as much in every scene, Wes Craven’s Scream 4 is a pretty fair hall-of-mirrors horror ride. The premise is that more than a decade after Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) dispatched her ultimate stalker and settled into private life, the slasher series she inspired (Stab, Stab 2, Stab 3, etc.) has hit the doldrums, and it’s time for a franchise “reboot.” Handily, Sidney has written an inspirational memoir about taking control of her life after all the years of mayhem, and her hometown of Woodsboro is the last stop on her book tour. In the main square, a prankster has hung a bunch of Scream/Stab melted Munchian skull masks (the mask has been dubbed “Ghostface”) from lamp posts, while the killer’s artificial rasp (“Hello, Sidney!”) has become a cell-phone app. Anyone and everyone has the tools to play the Scream game. All that’s required is a motive for butchering people. Like this one: “You think you’re still the star, Sidney. But I’m going to slit your eyelids so you don’t blink when I stab you!”
Scream 4 opens wittily and the climax is terrific, the killer’s revelation a meta-joke that works. In between, though, is something of a dead zone. The script (by series creator Kevin Williamson) teases us with the idea that the old guard — Campbell, David Arquette as Dewey (now the sheriff), and Courteney Cox as Gale Weathers (retired from TV news and trying to write a novel) — will be bumped off and replaced with a younger set of protagonists, among them Emma Roberts as Sidney’s ingenuous cousin, Jill, Hayden Panettiere as her bubbly horror-geek friend Kirby, and a posse of honeys from such series as Pretty Little Liars, Life As We Know It, and 90210. The out-with-the-old vibe is reinforced (unintentionally, depressingly) by the color of Campbell’s hair, too black for her lovely but late-thirtyish face and Cox’s apparent victimization at the hands of another sort of knife-wielder.
Apart from our abiding affection for Campbell and those sad, sweetly dysfunctional Arquettes, it’s hard to feel as if there’s much at stake — so Craven and Williamson have to work mighty hard to keep this balloon in the air. There are some star-cameo victims, as well as two cute new actresses to perk things up: Marley Shelton as a smitten blonde cop who’s always baking lemon squares for Dewey (it’s a Freudian come-on) and Alison Brie (of Mad Men and Community) as a rapacious PR agent. The movie is wall-to-wall red herrings, with shots held on characters a beat too long to make you think, He’s the killer! No, she is! No, it’s both of them. Wait But what keeps us in our seats is the blood.
If Scream 4 proves anything, it’s that the combination of a borderline campy script in which the characters make fun of slasher-film conventions with graphic and extremely disturbing violence is a killer. “Ghostface” doesn’t stab the victims so much as pound on them, whale on them, the knife blows driven home by loud, protracted crunches, the actors suddenly not so campy, playing their deaths to the all-too-agonizing hilt. There’s one murder here as cruel as anything in a Dario Argento film, complete with uncoiling intestines. No amount of reflexive joking can soften Craven’s sadism, which distinguished him early on, in The Last House on the Left, from such carnival barkers as H.G. Lewis, and which made the first A Nightmare on Elm Street film so sickeningly invasive. Although he’s a real craftsman now, he has what can’t be learned: a talent for giving pain.